Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Betty Friedan: The Prophet of Feminism

Discover how Betty Friedan emerged as a catalyst for profound social change through her groundbreaking work as a writer and activist. Her legacy is an inspiration for those dedicated to dismantling barriers and advancing the principles of equality and justice for all.

First published in Passions, Vol. 56, this article has been repurposed for the digital world – exclusive only on VOICE OF ASIA.

When Betty Friedan was born in 1921, women in the United States had only won the right to vote the previous year. However, other inequalities still persisted. Women were less likely to be hired for a managerial or even an executive role, they were paid less than their male counterparts, they were liable to be fired for getting pregnant, and the prevailing attitude was that a woman’s place is at home. By the time of her death in 2006, such notions have become outdated, while laws have been passed to ensure that no woman in the country will face discrimination at the workplace because of her gender.

And it was Friedan who led the charge that brought about the change. A trained psychologist from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley, her 1963 opus The Feminine Mystique was the first shot fired in the second wave of feminism. The prevailing belief then is that a woman is an extension of a man. If she married, her ultimate goal is to be a good housewife. If not, her aim should be to find a husband and then be a good housewife.

Friedan argued that a woman has ambitions and desires of a higher quality than just base wants and needs. In other words, a woman is more than just someone’s daughter, sister, wife or mother, but an entity of her own. It was a revolutionary thought; one which sparked off the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, and Freidan was the forefront of it all.

She would later help establish the National Organization of Women (NOW) – which campaigned for the banning of gender-based discrimination in the workforce, and then in 1970, organised the Women’s Strike For Equality which called for social, economic and political equality. Numbering 20,000 participants, it was then the largest-ever gathering for women’s rights in the United States.

For Betty Friedan, the ultimate aim of feminism is to bring about the economic empowerment of women. While issues such as birth control and abortion (the legalisation of which she campaigned for) are of special interest, inequality will not cease until men and women are accorded the same opportunities in the workforce and in business.

If she were alive today, she may agree that much has been accomplished while more needs to be done. But definitely, any woman who is in the boardroom of corporate America today, who is making decisions on the business, owes Betty Friedan a debt of gratitude for the change she wrought in society.

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